California Code of Civil Procedure Section 877 - Interpretation

Code of Civil Procedure section 877, in pertinent part, provides: "Where a release, dismissal with or without prejudice, or a covenant not to sue or not to enforce judgment is given in good faith before verdict or judgment to one or more of a number of tortfeasors claimed to be liable for the same tort, or to one or more other co-obligors mutually subject to contribution rights, it shall have the following effect: (a) It shall not discharge any other such party from liability unless its terms so provide, but it shall reduce the claims against the others in the amount stipulated by the release, the dismissal or the covenant, or in the amount of the consideration paid for it whichever is the greater." General Motors Corp. v. Superior Court (1993) 12 Cal. App. 4th 435, 439-440 15 Cal. Rptr. 2d 622, involved an auto accident in which the plaintiff's wife died. The plaintiff settled with the driver of the other vehicle and released the driver and " 'any and all other persons, firms and corporations, whether herein named or referred to or not' " from all claims arising from the accident. ( General Motors Corp. v. Superior Court, supra, 12 Cal. App. 4th at p. 438.) The plaintiff than sued General Motors, the manufacturer of the car driven by his wife. The trial court denied General Motors' motion for summary judgment, but the Court of Appeal reversed and directed the trial court to grant the motion. ( Id. at p. 444.) The Court of Appeal rejected the argument, based on Code of Civil Procedure section 877, that a general release must specifically identify all tortfeasors to be released. (General Motors Corp., supra, 12 Cal. App. 4th at pp. 439.) The appellate court found the language of the release at issue appeared "clearly and unambiguously to release every person or entity from liability to plaintiff arising from the described automobile accident." ( Id. at pp. 440-441, 15 Cal. Rptr. 2d 622.) There was no evidence to show the parties or their attorneys did not intend the release to include General Motors. ( Id. at p. 441.) The surrounding circumstances, concluded the appellate court, indicated the parties did intend to release General Motors. ( Id. at p. 442.)